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What Should I Know About Guinea-Bissau?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 March 2014
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Guinea-Bissau is a small country in Western Africa. It covers 13,900 square miles (36,100 sq. km), making it a bit larger than the state of Maryland. It shares borders with Guinea and Senegal, and has coastline along the Atlantic Ocean.

The region that is now Guinea-Bissau has been inhabited for millennia by various tribal groups. In the 14th century Guinea-Bissau was assimilated into the large Mali Empire, which ruled over much of Western Africa.

European contact with Guinea-Bissau began when the Portuguese began trading along the coast of West Africa in the 15th century. The Portuguese laid claim to the region at the end of the 15th century, but for the next century would do little to try to control the area. In the early 17th century Portugal began to take a more active interest in Portuguese Guinea, administering the area more directly. The Mali Empire had largely dissolved at this point, so resistance to the Portuguese was minimal.

Guinea-Bissau was an important region in the slave trade during the 18th century, and massive numbers of slaves were sent from ports along the coast of the territory. When the slave trade began to decline in the early 19th century, Guinea-Bissau began to wane economically. The Portuguese began pushing in towards the interior of the territory in the late 19th century, eventually consolidating much of the region, although heavy fighting would continue well into the 20th century, with the final regions being subdued only in the 1930s.

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In the mid-1950s, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde was formed, with the intent of driving out the Portuguese. An armed rebellion began in 1961, and heavy fighting continued for more than a decade, with the rebellion eventually gaining control of most of the country. In 1973 independence was formally declared, and it was recognized following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974.

In 1980 the elected government was overthrown in a bloodless coup, and for the next 14 years Guinea-Bissau would remain under single-party rule. In 1994 multi-party elections were held, and Guinea-Bissau returned to a relatively open democracy. In 1998 a Civil War broke out, and in 1999 a military junta forced the elected president to step down. Although open elections have continued, the intervention by a military coup in 2003 to remove the president have complicated public perception of democracy.

Despite a rocky past, Guinea-Bissau is relatively safe for travelers, and is developing a modest tourist infrastructure. The city of Bissau contains a number of historic sites from the 17th century slave trade, for those interested in the darker history of the region. The islands off the coast offer some of the best vacationing spots, with the Arquipélago Dos Bijagós containing some beautiful sandy beaches, and an amazing array of wildlife.

Flights arrive occasionally in Bissau from major hubs in the region. Overland crossing from Senegal is not recommended because of current separatist action, but the crossing from Guinea is relatively easy.

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